The Design of Elementary Schools

This article developed from a presentation EE&K Principal Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP gave at the Inter-American Development Bank’s 2-day workshop in Santiago, Chile in late September. The workshop engaged the vice-ministers of education from the region and top experts on Education and Infrastructure from around the world in a dialogue on the Infrastructure in the 21st Century and Learning.

A 21st-century elementary school is a complex system of environments that may need to address a wide variety or educational, social, recreational, environmental, and community needs. While each of these categories could be the subject of an article alone, in the following sections I offer ideas and references on how to:

  • Create a Child-scaled Environment
  • Foster Flexible Classrooms
  • Extend Learning Beyond the Classroom
  • Employ Subtle Security
  • Engage the Community
  • Establish a Civic Presence

Create a Child-scaled Environment
Elementary school may be the first “institution” that a child encounters largely independent of their family. Depending upon the size of the school, psychologically this can be a daunting transition for even the most gregarious three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Accordingly, one of the goals of design is to ease this transition to an unfamiliar setting and to begin to foster a cohesive community of lifelong learners.

One strategy is to reduce the perception, and perhaps the reality, of the school as a monolithic, uninviting structure and institution. Creating an environment that is closer in scale to familiar residential environments can help. Metaphors of houses, neighborhoods, villages, and public spaces drawn from neighborhood and urban design can help inspire an environment that successfully and progressively scales up from the individual to the larger learning community.

While it is not necessary to literally render these metaphors architecturally, they are used to establish a small-scale home-base for the students in the classroom where teachers and their classes can build strong relationships. As we organize the school beyond the classroom, several classrooms (“houses”) can be clustered into “neighborhoods.” Depending upon the pedagogy of the school, neighborhoods may be organized by grade level or they may house multi-age groups. Neighborhoods then can come together into a “learning village.”

Like our own towns and cities, the “connective tissue” should be conceived of as productive public places—streets and plazas—rather than as merely circulation. In an American school, circulation may account for over 25 percent of the building. Designing this space not only for movement but also for learning activates the entire building and further diminishes the likelihood that the building will feel like an intimidating institution to a young student.

Our metaphorical houses can also have “porches” onto public space where color and display can establish the identity of the class learning within. Benches, tables, and chairs outside of the classroom can extend learning into the public spaces of the building, activating the circulation now as a learning environment. Ultimately, the entire school may gather in the “heart of the school,” a town square or plaza that organizes the entire building and becomes the site of informal school gatherings and community events. (See Note 1)

Foster Flexible Classrooms
Certainly among the most critical elements of an elementary school is the design of the formal learning spaces, typically the classroom in an elementary school. There many considerations in the design of the learning environment that all interact to provide an adaptable and appropriate setting to learn including: space, furniture, acoustics, color, light, technology, and display. (See Note 2)

The construction cost of classroom square footage is easy to assess but the impact of those square feet on educational outcomes is harder to determine without understanding how classes really use space. For example, in a comparison of several pre-Kindergarten classrooms, including two larger 940-square-foot (87 square meters) Reggio Emilia-inspired classrooms and several smaller classrooms under 700 square feet (65 square meters), it became evident that the smaller classrooms could not accommodate the diversity of activity centers that the larger classrooms could. As well, the project-based Reggio pedagogy was better supported by the larger rooms where student projects could be developed over a period of days without having to be moved or dismantled. Every space in the smaller classrooms needed to be used for several purposes throughout the day, so these children could not create the same long-term projects that the children in the larger classrooms could.

As educational delivery is increasingly differentiated for older children, as well, and as students engage in individual, small-group, and large-group work in the same setting and other pedagogies including project-based learning evolve, we need to look at designing spaces for less density, ranging from a minimum of 30 square feet (2.79 square meters) per student to more flexible and adaptable highs of 45 to 50 square feet (4.18 to 4.65 square meters) per student.

Furniture appropriate for elementary students is one of the most misunderstood and complicated topics in school design, ever more complicated as educational technology becomes more actively used throughout a school. While the stature of students even in the same class can vary dramatically, for budgetary reasons most furniture specified for school is of one size and is not adjustable. Some studies have found that, ergonomically, school furniture only fits ten percent of students; the other 90 percent of students are sitting in chairs and at tables that are too high or too low. This incongruence can create ergonomic problems ranging from poor posture and strained backs to risk of carpel tunnel syndrome as technology becomes more pervasive.

Ideally, adjustable-height desks and seats would accommodate the varied physical size of the students and provide for appropriate ergonomic postures. Dieter Breithecker has argued that since children sit ten hours a day on average, school furniture should also accommodate their developmental need to move—to shift position, rock, rotate, and roll. He suggests that these kinds of movements are critical to intellectual growth since they stimulate circulation and enhance attention and concentration. (See Note 3)

Bookshelves, cubbies, and other furniture also play an important role in organizing space in the elementary classroom, helping to create distinct “activity centers.” Flexibility in the classroom is fostered by enabling the teacher and the class to quickly reconfigure the room to suit a range of activity. Beginning with the youngest students, classroom furniture should enable the creation of a diversity of activity centers, possibly including science and art, block areas, dramatic play areas, writing centers, and places for the entire class to gather.

While younger children often have greater sit/stand opportunities due to a less formalized educational structure, as children grow older they often sit more frequently in chairs and at tables. In these classrooms, then, the furniture should allow for rapid reconfiguration, enabling work arrangements that foster individual, small-group, or large-group activity. Students should be provided with opportunities to change posture throughout the day, including standing or reclining on soft seating, regardless of age.

The ability to hear and to be heard is one of the most critical performance criterion of a successful learning environment. This is especially true with children who have not yet learned to read and children who are learning a second language. Ensuring an appropriate “signal-to-noise ratio” so that the teacher, students, and other media can be heard is a function of controlling background noise and reverberation.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has published standards (ANSI S12.60-2010) that define the maximum desirable background noise levels at 35 dBA with a reverberation time of .6 to .7 seconds in core teaching environments such as classrooms and laboratories. Achieving or exceeding these targets requires attention to several systems, including Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC), walls, windows, doors, ceilings, and flooring. Sound Transmission Class (STC) performance criteria are also specified to ensure appropriate separation from adjacent sources of noise. Exterior noise is often the most difficult to control and is a more challenging issue on urban sites, requiring greater performance from window assemblies, in particular.

Proper acoustics within and between classrooms will likely become even more critical over time as the use of audio-visual equipment with multimedia capabilities—such as interactive whiteboards— continues to proliferate and more active learning pedagogies are employed.

We know from published reports of experimentation that certain colors can effect physiological changes in blood pressure. For instance, red is often cited as relating to heightened blood pressure, whereas blue is associated with decreased blood pressure. These more heightened or dampened states of excitation are often assumed to be more or less appropriate for learning. However, while blood pressure is readily quantifiable, many of these studies do not provide sufficient information to derive a direction for design as they provide no correlation to performance or learning outcomes. Likewise, response to color is culturally variable.

In contrast to these more generalized assumptions, several studies have suggested that specific colors may have an effect on the performance of specific types of tasks. In a study published in the journal Science (Mehta, 2009), the authors indicate that different colors may influence different levels of attention: red influences higher performance on detail-oriented tasks and blue influences higher performance on creative tasks. While this study was based upon the background color of computer screens being used on specific tasks, similar studies have gauged performance in different color office settings.

In design, rather than focus on performance derived from specific colors, we may achieve better results, as Manhke (1996) suggests, by focusing on the location of color so that it helps to reduce glare and eye strain. For example, Nuhfer recommends an accent wall in a “different complementary or darker hue.” He argues that this color change, if located on a “presentation wall,” will help reduce student eye strain as they shift their focus from their desk to the presentation. Likewise, others suggest that the application of color to three walls and another color to a single wall will reduce visual monotony in the environment.

In addition to acoustics, appropriate lighting is one of the most critical performance attributes of the learning environment. Strongly related to both color and energy performance, lighting in a 21st-century classroom draws upon natural and electric light sources and requires special attention to the (varied) activities being lit, the use of technology, orientation, and time of year.

With activities ranging from napping to detailed project-based work and learning media ranging from finger paint to digital audio-visual displays, lighting in the classroom needs to be adjustable to the task. Considering the diversity of activity that can be occurring simultaneously within a
classroom, lighting may also need to vary across the room. Classrooms can be designed that present the teacher with opportunities to use natural light at the windows, for example, by proving built-in shelves where plants can be grown, and other areas that are better suited to the use of technology.

The challenge is to provide glare-free natural light supplemented by switchable and dimmable electric lighting. Tall windows with shades, and depending upon the orientation, light shelves can help provide glare-free natural light deep into a classroom. Direct/indirect electric lighting can supplement the daylight available by illuminating the ceiling and providing sufficient “down light” to enliven the space, provide for good color and spatial rendition, and ensure visual comfort. Task lighting may also complement ceiling-mounted fixtures. An integrated design approach should assess the reflectance of the colors and materials of the room in concert with the lighting design, reducing the potential for excessive contrast and glare.

Kindles, iPhones, iPads, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter…cloud computing, converging media, social networking. Technology in 2010 is a fast-moving target. The New York Times (January 20, 2010) quotes Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, as saying that with media use in the United States so ubiquitous, it is time to stop arguing over whether it is good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment. The Public Broadcasting System (2010) emphasized the increasing comfort and use of “digital media” by teachers in the United States; it also indicates growing but still limited use of the media directly by students. A Kaiser Family Foundation report (2010) provided a counterpoint to the PBS findings indicating the pervasive recreational use of “media” by children outside of school in the United States.

“Technology” will continue to become smaller, more mobile, and more widespread. The rate of development of educational technology will also continue to develop at a pace that will far exceed the available funds to continuously adapt the architecture of a building to house these new technologies and take advantage of new learning opportunities. (See Note 4)

Accordingly, we need to design flexible environments that can change quickly without requiring renovation. Dedicated computer labs will become less useful as mobile technologies—laptops, iPads, smart phones, “clickers”—enable students and teachers to bring technology to the task, rather than the task to the lab. Computer labs will need to be designed to transform into another productive use over time. Classrooms will need to provide furniture that accommodates the use of laptops and other mobile technologies as they emerge. Mobile technologies with wireless access will provide the ability to connect across the campus enabling the use of technology for writing a report in the classroom, making a presentation in the library as well cataloguing insects in the school garden.

Another useful metaphor for classroom design is to imagine the classroom as a stage for learning. As a stage enables varied sets to be constructed, every surface of the classroom can be engaged in the learning process, particularly the walls and even the ceiling and the floor. Personalization of the learning environment through two- and three-dimensional displays reinforces the learning process and communicates the values of the learning community. Frequently, however, numerous door openings, storage units, HVAC equipment, electrical devices, grills, wainscots, and sometimes even too many windows reduce the amount of “productive” wall space. Classroom designs should ensure that wall surfaces, particularly at the scale of the children, are as unencumbered as possible. The ceiling is also an opportunity for suspending artwork or curtains from a grid, or even—with proper structural design—for creating kinetic physics experiments.

Extend Learning beyond the Classroom
Learning isn’t confined to the classroom. Informal and formal learning will occur through the campus and, with the appropriate design, a school can provide opportunities for students to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally. (See Note 1) Accordingly, every square foot of the campus
should be considered a setting for learning. As noted above, circulation in some schools may comprise over 25 percent of the building. As students move through the school displays can engage their imaginations, seating areas can provide a place to linger with a friend for a moment, and
interactions with faculty can reinforce classroom activity.

Circulation space also can be reconceived as an active extension of the classroom, providing breakout space for small group work, reading groups, and projects. Active use of circulation space is fostered by transparency between the space adjacent to the classroom and the classroom enabling the faculty to observe and engage. Optimizing the campus extends outdoors, as well. Even in colder latitudes, micro-climates can be created, for example by the building creating a courtyard, that invite use in all seasons. Site design amenities including gardens, amphitheaters, loggias, and plazas further enhance the possibilities.

Employ Subtle Security
Any school should be an oasis of safety. Creating a safe and secure learning environment where students can learn free of safety-related stress requires consideration of at least two commonly discussed threats: intruders and bullies. Often a response to the first is to turn toward technology—video cameras, magnetometers, x-ray machines—and then to create a wall around the campus. These are reactive approaches that may be necessary in some circumstances, but school design should also take advantage of more proactive strategies that are derived from and foster a strong learning community.

Building upon the idea that a good learning community is built upon good communication, openness, transparency, and engagement can create a more “subtle security” that can transform a school from an institutional and somewhat threatening setting to an inviting and safe place to learn.
Taking a lesson from Oscar Newman’s “defensible space” design strategies, one of the keys is to have many “eyes on the street.” Transparency throughout and around the school enables people to see and be seen.

Intruders can be frustrated by limiting access. Often older schools have many points of entry, providing opportunities for unwanted guests, not to mention confusing visitors. A single, clear “front door,” where the administration overlooks the outdoor space before the entry doors as well inside the entrance can ensure that the staff actively engages all arriving visitors. The reception area can be designed to be open and welcoming, making immediate contact with arriving visitors easy. In some designs, visitors are routed directly into the main office.

Bullying occurs in spaces where adults are not likely to see it happen, often in stairs, corridors, cafeterias, and on playgrounds. There are several opportunities where the school’s architecture can intervene by organizing spaces that encourage greater interaction among adults and students throughout the campus, reducing the exploits of bullies. One such opportunity is to distribute administrators throughout the campus. With offices, copy rooms, and faculty workrooms arrayed across campus, adults are more likely to be moving through all areas of the school, engaging the students and modeling appropriate behavior. For example, a faculty work room could be located to overlook a playground or a counselor’s office can be located on the second floor, intermingled with classrooms.

Another opportunity to reduce bullying is to use transparency as a method of reducing those areas where students can be out of sight. For instance, glazing between program spaces and circulation encourages visual engagement and communication, reducing inappropriate behavior. Likewise, glazing in stairways allows people to see and be seen while having the added benefit of bringing natural light into an often foreboding and dark space.

Engage the Community
Public investment in school construction is significant, and schools are often the most widely accessible facilities that a government constructs for its citizens. Accordingly, because of their convenience and the need to maximize resources, schools can be conceived as centers of community that serve not only school-age children but also pre-school children, adults, and seniors. By offering recreation, health care, meeting spaces, and continuing education opportunities, an elementary school can increase the utilization of a major investment in facilities and provide services that otherwise would not be available in many of those communities.

In inviting the community into a school, special attention should be paid in zoning the building to allow the school to limit access to specifically defined public areas. For example, the gym, library, cafeteria, and multiple purpose room could be zoned for use as a community center after school hours, while the portion of the school that houses classrooms is closed off. Preventing people from “wandering the halls” makes the facility more secure and easier to keep clean.

When programming an elementary school, community use may also influence the size, types, and configuration of spaces and furniture provided. For example, a gym sized strictly for young children may be uncomfortably small for adults to use recreationally over the weekend. A health clinic or a pre-school may have its own front door for convenience and to control access to the larger school during the day. A multipurpose room may have adjustable furniture that accommodates adults.

Establish a Civic Presence
Finally, when designing a school it is important to consider the symbolic role of the school in the community. How should it represent the value that the community places on education to students, staff, and to passersby? What should it suggest about the history and the future of the community?
There is no singular answer to these questions, and engaging designs have been made to address all of them—designs that reflect cultural identity through the use of color, permanence through the use of masonry, sustainability through visible photovoltaics, and openness through the use of glass. There are numerous strategies.

The best buildings also create great places around them. Entry plazas and landscapes contribute greatly to the first and lasting impression of a school and create transitional zones where the school and the community can come together.

New and Existing Elementary Schools in the 21st Century
In summary, the design of 21st Century elementary schools requires attention to myriad interrelated issues spanning from pedagogy and technology, cognition and perception, demographics, budget, community to cultural goals and values. Our overarching need is to ensure the future of our communities by educating our children in facilities that are welcoming, safe, and supportive. While the ideas put forth in this paper to achieve these goals may seem to imply a need for new construction, they apply equally to the continued use of existing school buildings and campuses. We need to strategically evaluate our entire inventory of schools, planning for new elementary schools that will be successful today and in the future while also assuring that our existing campuses continue to adapt and serve their communities. (See Note 11)

1) For further information on the design of non-program school space (corridors, lobbies, common areas, etc.) that create opportunities for social interaction, the design of safe and observable spaces, and connectivity to program space, see: “Place-Making: How the out-of-classroom experience can foster social and emotional learning”; Sean O’Donnell; Learning By Design_; n16, p20-23; 2007.
2) This section is based upon the author’s forthcoming article on classroom design for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (www.ncef.org).
3) For more on the design of furniture appropriate for children’s developmental needs, see: "Learning and moving at the “workplace school”: Development and learning needs movement"; Dr. Dieter Breithecker (Federal Association for Behavioral and Movement Encouragement) http://www.haltungbewegung.de/Data/Sites/4/media/Dokumente/Ergonomics-for-children/68_70_Activity_breithecker.pdf
4) For more on the rate of change of technology versus the ability of architecture to adapt see: “Planning for Flexibility, Not Obsolescence,” a keynote address by Ezra Ehrenkrantz;
5) For more formation on lighting design, see chapter 13 of Building Type Basics for Elementary and Secondary Schools by L. Bradford Perkins, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2001. A new edition of this book is currently available.
6) “Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances”; Ravi Mehta and Rui (Juliet) Zhu; Science 27 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5918, pp1226 – 1229.
7) Color, Environment and Human Response; Frank H. Mahnke, Wiley, 1996
8) Some Aspects of an Ideal Classroom: Color, Carpet, Light and Furniture; Edward B. Nuhfer;
9) “Digitally Inclined” Grunwald Associates LLC for the Public Broadcasting Corporation, 2009.
10) “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds;” Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2010.
11) For more information of the ability of existing schools to house 21st-century programs, see: “Schoolhouse of the Future”; Sean O’Donnell; Learning by Design, Spring 2010; http://www.eekarchitects.com/community/1-eek-views/82-school-house-of-the-future.